War Stories

What Obama Could Learn From America’s Greatest Unknown Nuclear Strategist

Get out of the hothouse from time to time.

The phone call came this morning: My old professor, William Weed Kaufmann, who had been ailing for some time, died a few hours earlier, in his sleep, at the age of 90.

Kaufmann was one of those shadowy figures of the Cold War era, unknown to the public but deeply influential in the strange subculture of military planning and nuclear strategy.

From 1961 to 1981, he spent two days a week teaching graduate students at MIT’s political science department; the other three days he served as special assistant to every secretary of defense from John F. Kennedy’s to Jimmy Carter’s. Before that, in the late 1950s, he was an analyst at the RAND Corp., the Air Force-sponsored think tank where ideas about war in the nuclear age were coined—and Kaufmann did much of the coining.

But more to the point (for I don’t mean to write a reminiscence or an obit), the evolution in Kaufmann’s thinking, especially after he left the corridors of power, holds a lesson for those on Team Obama—including the president-elect himself—preparing to immerse themselves in the maze.

When Bill Kaufmann started thinking about the Bomb, Soviet-American tensions were near their peak. A lot of people seriously believed that a nuclear war was possible, even likely. And the U.S. Strategic Air Command’s plan for such a war was, to put it simply, insane. If the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe, SAC’s actual, official, and only plan was to launch its entire atomic arsenal—3,423 nuclear bombs, packing a total of 7,487 megatons of explosive power—against every major urban, industrial, and military target in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Communist China. The official estimate held that the attack would kill 285 million Russians and Chinese, severely injure 40 million more, and wreak incalculable casualties from radioactive fallout.

This was the plan, assuming that the Soviets invaded only with conventional armies, that they did not drop a single one of their atomic bombs first.

Quite apart from moral considerations, the plan made no strategic sense. The attack would almost certainly fail to destroy all of the Soviets’ nuclear weapons. Facing such a huge (and quite visible) onslaught of bombers and missiles, the Soviets would strike back—perhaps pre-emptively—and kill millions in the United States and Western Europe. It wasn’t just mass murder; it was suicide.

So, Kaufmann (along with a few others at RAND) came up with an alternative, which they he called a “counterforce” strategy. If the Soviets invaded Western Europe (a scenario for which the United States at the time had no conventional defense), we should drop a relatively small number of nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union—hitting only their strategic military targets (bomber bases, missile sites, submarine pens, etc.)—and keep the rest of our arsenal on alert but at invulnerable locations (on submarines at sea or in underground missile silos). The president should then tell the Soviet premier: If you don’t retreat, we will fire these remaining weapons against your cities. The idea was to try to “manage” the nuclear war, to keep the damages “limited.”

Some of Kaufmann’s colleagues—most notably Herman Kahn, the intellectual model for Dr. Strangelove—adopted the counterforce logic with exuberance. (In his book Thinking About the Unthinkable, Kahn spelled out 44 “rungs of escalation” from “Ostensible Crisis” to “Spasm or Insensate War,” with in-between rungs including “Harassing Acts of Violence,” “Barely Nuclear War,” “Local Nuclear War—Exemplary,” and “Slow-Motion Countercity War.”)

Kaufmann was the exact opposite of Kahn in style and temperament. He viewed counterforce as a strategy strictly of desperation—a possible way to keep things from getting totally out of control in case war broke out.

But then Kaufmann came into the Pentagon during the reign of Robert McNamara (who hired almost all of his “whiz kids” from RAND). McNamara had received SAC’s briefing on the official war plan—which horrified him—before hearing Kaufmann outline counterforce. McNamara found Kaufmann’s ideas positively liberal by comparison—and ordered SAC to incorporate them into its nuclear-war plan.

At this point, a different logic took over. It was one thing to propose the idea as a principle and another to translate it into policy. The more you deal with the details of a concept, the more real it seems. And the more secretive the details (and there were few documents more secret than the nuclear-war plan), the more this cloistered setting comes to resemble a hothouse, unexposed to the air of any outside scrutiny.

“It’s the king’s game,” Kaufmann once told me, with a reedy chuckle, in explaining the allure of this inner sanctum.

But then, in the early ‘80s, when Ronald Reagan came to office, Kaufmann got out of the hothouse (nobody asked him to stay on), and he suddenly saw his old world from a fresh perspective.

In the intense ambience of RAND or the Pentagon, he told me, “it was easy to get caught up in the whole nuclear business. You could eat and breathe the stuff. … Then you’d move away from it for a while, look at it from a distance, and think, ‘God, that’s a crazy world.’ “

Even on the theory’s own level, flaws stood out blaringly. In one conversation we had around this time, he listed several problems: “How do you get your surveillance and post-attack reconnaissance? How do you know what’s been hit and what’s left? How do you end the war? How do you get the two sides together?”

Kaufmann and most of his like-minded colleagues had always held some of these reservations about the concept, but they stuck to it, again, as an alternative to the instant holocaust of the pre-1960s nuclear-war plan.

The novelty—and shock—of the Reagan administration, especially in its first term, was that, for the first time, high-level officials were talking about “limited nuclear options” and “prevailing” in a “protracted nuclear war” in public and with gusto, as if the notions were real and even appealing.

At this point, ensconced at the Brookings Institution, Kaufmann became an outspoken critic of defense planning and policies, attacking the feasibility of the nuclear notions and calling for a 50 percent reduction in the military budget.

Gradually, he abandoned the ideas about nuclear war that he’d once practically invented. They “may sound reasonable—or may not, depending on your viewpoint,” he once told me, “but they have no operational substance. … My guess is they’re just not worth the trouble, even assuming they are feasible, which I question.”

The Cold War and preoccupations with nuclear-war strategy are, of course, long over. So what lessons does Kaufmann’s evolution hold for the incoming Obama administration? Every subculture, especially every bureaucratized subculture, has a set of unquestioned assumptions—bits of “conventional wisdom,” as John Kenneth Galbraith once called them. The key to preserving one’s sanity and wisdom is not to fall prey to their assumptions, not to fear sounding stupid by questioning them—to stay an inside player without losing a common-sense outsider’s perspective.